Auricular Training & The Little Deaf Child

I came across a copy of The Little Deaf Child: A Book for Parents, a short book published in 1928 reassuring parents of deaf children that with proper training and education, there was hope for their children. The book was written by John Dutton Wright (1866-1952), the founder and director of the Wright Oral School in New York City, which was established in 1902. The school was originally the Wright-Humason School, founded in 1892 jointly by Wright and Thomas A. Humason on 42 West 77th Street, New York City. The school had a limited enrollment of 25-30 pupils; Helen Keller was one of the pupils, trained to read with her fingers and improve her speech.

John Dutton Wright. The autograph reads: "May this little book bring new courage for old despair."
John Dutton Wright. The autograph reads: “May this little book bring new courage for old despair.”

Wright begins The Little Deaf Child with a simple direction: “Please read the book through from beginning to end before trying to put its suggestions into practical operation in teaching a child. You must educate yourself before you can teach another.” The book follows the earlier slim books written by Wright: Handbook of Speech Training to the Deaf and Handbook of Auricular Training, which were directed to physicians in the hopes of counselling them how to advise parents of deaf children in both medical and educational options. In addition, The Little Deaf Child follows up from Wright’s 1915 publication, What the Mother of a Deaf Child Ought to Know (iTunes podcast also available), an original manuscript during the time offering advice to mothers to master their relationships with a deaf child. According to Wright, “It was not much of a book, but it was the only thing of its kind in print, and has been purchased by people all over the world. It has been translated into Japanese and Mahrati.”

The Little Deaf Child offers guidelines to parents in terms of training and education of young deaf children, for “[v]ery much can be done along these lines at home while the child is yet too young for school and this is where I hope this little volume may be of some service to the perplexed mother, wholly inexperienced in the situation which confronts her” (17). Wright divides the training of the young deaf child in to three periods: (1) For the first two years of life; (2) for the third and fourth years of life; (3) for the fifth year of life. By the time the child reaches age six, it is best to enter the child into one of the special schools for the deaf, or, if preferred, for the parent to employ a specially trained and experienced teacher in the home.

Wright advises parents to begin immediately by evaluating the child’s residual training to begin auricular training. Then, the child is taught to assess his or her other senses, and then, when the child proves to have retained some hearing sufficient to be employed, lip-reading training should begin. Gestures should be minimized and the parent should avoid “spoiling” the child. During the second period, the parent should asses the child’s sight, continue sense training by cultivating the child’s muscular sense, sense of sight, and touch; games of imitation (e.g. piling up blocks), could aid in this training process. Further hearing tests and lip-reading training should continue—moreover, the parent should concentrate on teaching the child to “listen to sounds for the purpose of getting ideas and not merely for the purpose of perceiving sound.” By the third period, the child should learn to read and speak through a variety of exercise that Wright provides in the book.

The book additionally provides a list of special schools for deaf children, with an overview of the common methods used in these schools. Although most schools used a form of the “Combined Method” (speech + speech-reading + auricular training), there were some schools that focused strictly on the “Manual Method” (sign-language), the “Oral Method” (speech + speech-reading + writing), or, as with the Wright Oral School, the “Auricular Method” (speech + hearing + writing), which made use of the hearing of semi-deaf pupils with or without the use of acoustic aids. The auicular method, it should be noted, was largely directed to educating pupils as hard-of-hearing speaking persons, rather than members of the Deaf community.

Wright examining a child (Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Hard and Hearing Collection; Disability History Museum)
Wright examining a child, 1900 (Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Hard and Hearing Collection; Disability History Museum)

Auricular training made use of hearing trumpets, audiphones, conversation tubes, and other types of acoustic aids to increase hearing amplification and make use of hearing as a means of communication. An article in the New York Times from 16 September 1917 explained how Wright brought auricular training to the attention of medical professions. Co-operation with physicians was required in “order that advantage may be taken of unrealized possibilities of educating slight powers of hearing remaining in the cases of many deaf children attending the special schools for the deaf throughout the country.” The “unrealized possibilities” of auricular training could be developed with proper teaching methods. According to Wright, about 35% of pupils at his school had sufficient residual hearing to benefit greatly by the auricular method:

I believe that an adequate examination of all the pupils in our special schools for the deaf would show that fully one-third of them—that is, more than three thousand—are suitable subjects for such training of the brain through the normal channel of approach…It has been my experience that while artificial aids to hearing may sometimes be useful in the earliest stage of awakening attention to sounds, and in the later stage in extending the range of which the hearing can be made of service, throughout the real education process of teaching the brain to associate meaning with sounds and to remember those associations, the use of the unaided voice, applied directly to the ear, produces the best and most rapid results.

Wright’s work at the school secured his reputation as a pioneer in education of the deaf with the use of acoustic aids and auricular training. He was also one of the first directors to include sound amplifiers in schools. He published several journal articles, especially in the Volta Review, the publication of the Volta Bureau (est. 1887, now the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing). The Volta Bureau advised all mothers of deaf children to read The Little Deaf Child.

Active in civic affairs throughout his life, in 1920 Wright traveled the world with his wife and two children, occasionally visiting schools for the deaf. He was particularly influential in the creation of Japan’s first oral school for the deaf. A collection of Wright’s travel photographs can be viewed at the Dutton Wright Photographic Collection at the University of Washington, some of which I’ve included below.

John Dutton Wright, his wife Ysabel Wright, and their children John Jr. and Anna seated on an elephant, with a car in the background, ca. 1921
John Dutton Wright, his wife Ysabel Wright, and their children John Jr. and Anna seated on an elephant, c.1921 (University of Washington Libraries)
One of Wright’s photographs in India, 1921 (University of Washington Libraries)
Wright's photograph: Boy and woman with babies on their backs, Japan, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright’s photograph: Boy and woman with babies on their backs, Japan, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright's Photo: Group of boys with bamboo instruments called angklung, Java, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright’s Photo: Group of boys with bamboo instruments called angklung, Java, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).



Wilson’s Common Sense Ear Drums

George H. Wilson (1866-1949) of Louisville, Kentucky, received a patent (U.S. #476,853) for his “rimless [and] self-ventilating” artificial eardrum in 1892. Often referred as “wireless phones for the ears,” the device was made of rubber, designed to be simple in construction and “so shaped that it can be quickly and readily removed and replaced without pain, and when in position is invisible, not liable to irritate, and is a good sound conductor.” Wilson_LetterheadEarly advertisements for Wilson’s device, the “Common Sense Ear Drums,” emphasized its invisibility, both in public, and for the wearer themselves—the device was so resilience, soft, and painless, that even a user could forget they had them on. In other words, Wilson’s design ensured the prosthetic nature of the eardrums; they were so integrated with body that it became a part of it, and could be easily forgotten.

Advertisements for the Wilson Ear Drum Company additionally capitalized on the technical and scientific aspects of the device: adverts were accompanied with an anatomical drawing of the ear, demonstrating the eardrum in position. Even the copy addressed the device as a “scientific invention,” rhetorically ensuring its legitimacy over other kinds of artificial eardrums available on the market. By the 1910s, however, the company’s advertisements dramatically shifted focus from the technical and scientific towards the morose suffering of the deaf person—Wilson’s Common Sense Eardrums were not only designs of science, but a cure so that no one could remain deaf.


The shift was due to the work of salesman Albert Lasker (1880-1952) who made a name for himself as an advertiser at the agency Lord & Thomas, by ensuring ad copy appealed to the psychological state of customers. Around 1900, Lasker proposed to Wilson a new ad copy, promising new and dramatic results. He replaced the technical drawing with a photo of Wilson cupping his hand to his ear; to Lasker, Wilson not only looked like “the deafest deaf man you ever saw,” but was evidence of a success story—deaf himself, now cured, by his own creation.[1] The new ad copy boldly proclaimed: “You Hear! When you use Wilson’s Common Sense Ear Drums.”


Other ads continued to portray deafness as curable when using Wilson’s Ear Drums, with the copy expanded at times to include testimonials. Customers could also write and request a pamphlet, which provided additional information about the benefits of the patented device in amplifying hearing; testimonials from satisfied customers further added support to the integrity and success of the device.


The advertisements for Wilson’ Ear Drums indicated that with the device, a d/Deaf person would be happier as they were able to participate in hearing society and include themselves in ways previously denied to them.


[1] Jeffrey L. Cruikshank & Arthur W. Schultz, The Man who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Industry (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 52.

A Chamber of the Stillness of Death: Phyllis M.T. Kerridge’s Experiments in the Silence Room

I’m beginning a new project on the historical contributions of women to otology, many of whom have been overlooked in scholarship. My current article investigates the physiological work of Dr. Phyllis Margaret Tookey Kerridge, who died on June 22, 1940, the only daughter of Mr. William Alfred Tookey of Bromley, Kent. She was educated at the City of London School of Girls and at University College London; her graduate studies commenced at the latter institution, first in chemistry and then physiology, where she was also appointed as lecturer. She also held posts in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Marine Biological Association Laboratory at Plymouth, the Carlsberg Laboratories at Copenhagen, and at London Hospital. She received her M.D. from University College Hospital, in 1933 and became member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1937.[1]

During the 1930s, Kerridge conducted experiments to measure the residual hearing capacity of children in London County Council schools, as well as experiments in teaching with electronic hearing aids. Much of her research was on patients at the Royal Ear Hospital, who were tested in the hospital’s “Silence Room:” a 3,500 cubic room in the basement of the hospital’s new building on Huntley Street, with

“walls impenetrable to extraneous noises and which will never reflect, deflect nor refract sounds—a chamber of the stillness of death, where absolute accuracy and complete consistency in results will be obtained.”

The room was built so exact tests to measure degrees of deafness can be made in ideal and constant conditions. Such stillness in this room apparently allowed people to hear heartbeats and the “flick” of their eyelids! A small table and two chairs were placed in the room. There was a bell to call the Porter’s room and an electric fan affixed there as well.

The Committee of the Royal Ear Hospital occasionally granted permission to medical practitioners to use the Silence Room for their own research purposes. For instance, in 1929, they granted the otologist Dr. Charles Skinner Hallpike (1900-1979), a research scholar from Middlesex Hospital, to use the room free of charge. Hallpike is particularly known for his ground-breaking work on the causes of Meniere’s disease (a disorder that causes episodes of vertigo) and for the Dix-Hallpike test for diagnosing benign positional vertigo (sensation when everything is spinning around you).

The Western Electric 1-A Audiometer in clinical use at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, c.1920s. Western Electric produced only about 25 of these audiometers, which retailed at about $1,500 in 1923. (Central Institute for the Deaf Collection)
The Western Electric 1-A Audiometer in clinical use at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, c.1920s. Western Electric produced only about 25 of these audiometers, which retailed at about $1,500 in 1923. (Central Institute for the Deaf Collection)

The hospital’s 1938 Annual Reports reveals that Kerridge was appointed to research at the Silence Room, then renamed as the “Hearing Aid Clinic,” working alongside Mr. Myles Formby to conduct hearing test on the hospital’s patients. Though the Clinic was initially started on a 6-month trial period, Kerriddge’s work was so beneficial that the hospital Committee decided to let her continue her research work and audiometer tests, extending care to private patients as well. They provided her with two more rooms in the basement, one as a waiting room and the other as an office, as well as the services of Miss W.J. Waddge as an assistant. In 1939, Kerridge viewed 170 cases, and according to the reports, her work among deaf patients was successful in helping many of them to be fitted properly for hearing aids.

Wartime of course, changed the course of things. The clinic was abandoned during World War II, but the hospital still provided hearing tests with the audiometer to test the hearing of patients suffering from “bomb blast.”


[1] Nature 146 (august 3, 1940).

A Census of the Deaf

Sir William Robert Wilde (1815-1876) was one of the most notable aural surgeons during the second half of the nineteenth-century. He made numerous to aural surgery, including tables on the hereditary basis of deafness and newer hearing tests to determine degrees of hearing loss. Wilde also made extensive use of statistics in his writing, using numbers to support his analysis. As such, some of his work provides remarkable insight into how deafness—and the deaf—were perceived by the medical profession, categorized, and even treated. His statistical work, particularly his Report upon the Tables of Death (1843), which outlined mortality rates in Ireland, as analyzed from the 1841 Irish general civil registration.

William Wilde, c.1870s (from Wikipedia Commons)
William Wilde, c.1870s (from Wikipedia Commons)

In 1850, Wilde was commissioned as Assistant Medical Census Commissioner, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life.[1] As part of his position, Wilde undertook a special study of the deaf, attempting to table not only the number of deaf individuals in Ireland, but also the number of families with deaf relations, the causes of their deafness, the length of their hearing loss, etc. In short, Wilde aimed to provide the first systematic and comprehensive data record of deafness in Ireland. Only 1 family refused to give informed consent (to which they would have been subjected to a fine). Wilde recorded there were 4,747 “true deaf and dumb” in a population of 6,553,386 (or 1 per 1,380).[2]

The data was formerly published as part of the census reports, in Part III: Report of the Status of Disease, Accounts and Papers (Ireland) 1854. Wilde also published his results in On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854), a short pamphlet outlining the data as well as his own analysis as an aurist. In the beginning of the pamphlet, he notes that in undertaking an inquiry into the condition of the deaf and dumb, there are two “great objects present—a physiological and a social:”

Under the former the deaf mute may be classed among those afflicted with permanent disease, either congenital or acquired, and as such, demands the careful investigation of the statistician; and all the causes and phenomena of the affection solicit attention equally with those circumstances attendant upon lunacy, idiocy, blindness, or any of the other persistent maladies which affect certain portions of the community in all countries. Under the latter head the deaf mute claims the special attention of the philanthropist, and the protection of the State…

The pamphlet also lists the questions that were employed in the data collection, including “Whether the person was born deaf and dumb, or became so afterwards?” “Whether the person is educated, and if so, where and by what means such education is acquired?” “The mute person’s position in the family, whether first, second, or third child, in a family of so many, both living and dead?”[3] The questions served to collect as much data as possible, particularly on hereditary deafness, an interesting connotation to later data-collections of the deaf in the United States by the Eugenics Record Office.

Table of Causes of Mutism, from Wilde's On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854)
Table of Causes of Mutism, from Wilde’s On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854)

[1] Robert J. Ruben, “William Wildes Census of the Deaf: A 19th Century Report as a Model for the 21st Century,” Otology & Neurotology 31 (2010): 352-359; 354.

[2] Ruben, 356.

[3] William R. Wilde, On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (London: John Churchill, 1854).

The “Popular Prejudice”

Throughout my research of nineteenth century works on aural surgery, as well as works on deafness and education for the deaf, I’ve come across the phrase “popular prejudice” often enough to warrant some analysis. The phrase reflects two crucial aspects of how deafness was perceived as a social image:

Firstly, deaf-mutes were constructed as social tragedies, isolated from society by their dumbness and denied the word of God by their deafness. The prejudice in this sense refers to the isolation, which could be helped only through benevolent charity and religious endeavors to release deaf-mutes form their “mental and moral imprisonment.” Seclusion in educational asylums that provided sign-language and speech instruction were deemed the best means for defeating this prejudice.

Secondly, and partly as a consequence of the first aspect, deafness was subjected to a prejudice regarding the medical and surgical impracticability of curing aural diseases. As Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1851) explained in 1801, following the success of his procedure of tympanic membrane perforation, “[a] prejudice has prevailed, that the ear is too delicate an organ to be operated upon, or, as it is commonly expressed, tampered with; and thousands have thus remained deaf…who might have been restored to hearing, had proper assistance been easily applied.”[1] Likewise, John Harrison Curtis wrote in his An Essay on the Deaf and Dumb (1829):

Though in very old cases cures may be performed, yet it is to recent ones chiefly that the aurist is to look for success; but, owing to popular prejudice, the malady is too often slighted or temporized with; and hence it is generally in confirmed cases on that he is consulted; for, in the early period of the disease when relief may be obtained, it is commonly neglected, until, tired out with the fruitless expectation of nature curing herself, the patient has at last recourse to advice.

I don’t yet have a solid historical analysis of this phrase, but I believe it’s worth emphasizing the value of it as a means for understanding the tensions between educators of asylums for the deaf and medical practitioners edging for patients. I’ll report more as I figure this out; in the meantime, your thoughts, Dear Reader, are more than welcome.

[1] Astley Cooper, “Farther Observations on the Effects which take place from the destruction of the membrana tympani of the ear,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London 91 (1801): 35-450; 449.